DIANA’s Carmen Elle Explains What It’s Like To Be On Tour With Anxiety

“You can’t ever know—even in the culture of honesty—what’s really going on with people”

by laura studarus

Carmen Elle really loves music. The DIANA frontwoman, who has also spent time with AUSTRA, Moon King, and Army Girls among others, feels the most comfortable in front a microphone, guitar in hand. When she takes the stage at Sled Island Festival hours after our conversation, she’s in her element—cracking jokes about her outfit (an all-black ensemble that she calls “Steve Jobs working from home” chic) and tearing saxophone- and R&B-kissed pop tunes from the Toronto band’s sophomore album Familiar Touch.

But all the other bits of the rock star life? Not really her bag. Having suffered from severe anxiety since she was a child, the singer-songwriter says she’s as likely to look forward to traveling as much as, say, licking subway sewer grates. That goes for touring as well—which is why DIANA hasn’t performed as extensively as the members would have hoped. And yet, here we both are, in Calgary, Canada, a city neither of us claims as home. It’s a near canonization-worthy miracle that Elle credits to both blogging about her fears and being in the fortunate position of being in a band with a public platform where she can say what’s on her mind. Even so, she admits lightheartedly, she doesn’t always reveal all the dirty details.

“People keep telling me how they appreciate how open and vulnerable I’ve been," she muses lightheartedly over coffee. “And I’m kind of looking at it like, ‘I really haven’t told you guys anything!’ You can’t ever know—even in the culture of honesty—what’s really going on with people.”

Read the rest of our interview with Elle below.

When did you first decide to discuss your anxiety?

We didn’t want to tour too much with the release of this album, specifically because I’m not very comfortable on the road. Part of that is giving people more of a narrative. Bringing everyone into the reasons behind it, instead of just being a band that releases an album and then sits around and doesn’t do much. We wanted to be like, “We’d love to tour but…”

Talking about emotional issues is so important. When you hear you’re not alone, things become more manageable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. There’s that puritanical belief [that you shouldn’t talk about it] that strangles society. Our parent’s generation is bearing down on us, telling us, “Don’t let them see you weak!” Our generation is almost reacting to it and saying, “I’m going to share everything!"

I used to not tell people when I was having panic attacks on tour. I used to sit in the car and really lock it down. No visible symptoms. I was all alone, but I was weirdly proud of myself. It took so much energy. I would be laid out for the whole tour in this weird private cycle. I didn’t want to burden anybody. The goal for this tour is to tell [the band] when it’s happening. Let’s see if I do it.

Were there any nerves, the first time you shared your story?

Yes. Probably for about 10 years, I didn’t talk or write about it. A friend of mine is on a similar journey. She’s making a comic about her own autoimmune stuff. And she said, “I came here to say the things that I need to say, the way I need to say them.” Okay, sure! It may not look like a book, and it may not look like an album, it may just be a blog for me. But part of the healing is in talking about it and allowing people to emphasize.

Every time I post a blog, I get 10 responses from people saying, “Have you tried this?” Or, “I heard this really works.” That’s really nice, but I was diagnosed when I was eight. I have tried everything. People really want to fix it. But they don’t seem to see that writing about it is what’s healing for me.

That’s so hard. Anyone who says that wants to see you healthy, but, at the same time, it’s also taking away from the fact you just want to share your struggles.

Yeah. The problem in the community and the world at large is the lack of empathy. I feel like very few people are assholes for no reason. Sometimes if you’re feeling sick or anxious, and you can’t show up the way you normally would, people are like, “Oh, they’re being such an egotistical rock star over there,” instead of asking one more question, “Hey what’s up with you?”

There’s that fear of asking someone if they’re okay and then offending them.

Totally. Like those people who say, “You look tired.”

Have you found practical steps that can help? Or has talking about it been your main source of relief?

I have different solutions for different problems. It depends what the need is at that time. Yesterday was really bad. I flew in from Toronto. There was crazy turbulence. Like in a disaster movie. The plane dove and then was pitched upward. Everyone was panicking. The guy next to me pulls out his air sickness bag to prepare. The woman to my left was already dry heaving. I started to feel sick, and by the time I landed, I was so out of it. I went into full fight or flight lockdown. Getting downtime afterward was definitely the right call. In the past, I might have pushed through. But nowadays, I’m trying to practice enough self-compassion to just listen to what I need. Sometimes that’s a hotel. Sometimes it’s not eating where everyone else eats. I used to get really mad at myself. Everyone else can tour? Why can’t I? Now I’m like, “It’s okay if I have to do it a different way.”

There’s a lot of power in that, not feel bad about taking care of yourself and doing what you need to do.

Yeah, it’s being a grown-up!

Are your anxieties travel-specific?

I do have obsessive compulsive disorder. It comes and goes. There are moments of real intensity. It’s all control shit, really. If there’s a super bug going around in the winter, everything ramps up for me. It’s hand-washing to the point of eczema outbreaks. Not eating at restaurants. If I’m anxious, I carry a bag and put all sorts of shit in it. If I’m not anxious, I don’t walk around with anything but my phone and my keys. It’s a spectrum.

Everything is, I think.

[Laughs] Totally. Whatever your thing is.

Does all this go away when you’re performing?

It does often; 99 percent of the time, I have this authentic and strong version of myself on stage. And it’s trusting myself. That’s the difference. Sometimes I’ll have panic attacks on stage. Once in Montreal, I was staring at the exit sign the whole time and was very close to throwing the guitar off and running away. I was overheating and had a migraine. So I was trying to surreptitiously take off layers of clothing. I took my shoes off and went behind the amp to splash water on my face when I didn’t need to sing. When I think back to that night, I only remember the exit sign.

It’s awesome that you’re choosing to tour anyway. From your live show, you can see that everyone in the band loves playing.

That’s true. It’s always felt a little bit sad that I have this ability to perform and none of the life skills to be a touring musician. [Laughs] It’s been good. I did a panel discussion about mental health and the arts. I’ve been wanting to do advocacy. I don’t know too many other musicians who are talking about it. But everyone I know is so anxious! It’s been a nice evolution, starting out in a band who’s interviewed about our albums and now getting to talk about other things. I was really drowning for a while with the release of this album—being so depressed and anxious. DIANA nearly stopped happening for a while. I was in such a bad place. It wasn’t until I did start talking about the anxiety stuff that it started to get better.

It’s great to know that you’re in a position now to carry on.

We’ve really done the work in terms of our own relationship dynamics. Being in a band is like being in a relationship. Often times when you’re dating somebody, you fall into this pattern of “Hi I love you. You love me? Great, we’re doing this thing. Let’s stay in tonight and watch TV.” Eventually, it becomes a companionship thing. Comfortable and maybe not so communicative. And then you break up and think, I really love this person I don’t know why it couldn’t work. You grow blind to one another. DIANA was that couple watching TV. We never talked about it. And then it almost completely destroyed us. We wound up rallying and putting a shit-ton of work in. And now it’s way better.

The guys are very conscious. I’m very lucky to have them as band members. They’ve been messaging me, “Do you need anything for this tour?” “How can we support you?” A lot of successful traveling comes from who you travel with.

Watch DIANA's video for "Moment of Silence," below.